Great Adventures: The Bunion Derby
Pat Kinsella follows in the countless steps of an event that redefined the meaning of cross-country running: the 1928 Trans-American Footrace from Los Angeles to New York
How nearly 200 runners tried to cross the US – on their own two feet
One mid-afternoon in March 1928, a motley mob of men left a racetrack in Los Angeles and began an extraordinary 3,422-mile footrace. The epic event, quickly dubbed the Bunion Derby, sent them across scorching deserts, over freezing mountain ranges and through merciless amounts of mud, endless dust-blown prairies and car-choked city streets from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.
With competitors hailing from all over the world, and every kind of social and ethnic background represented, the 84-day race ignited excitement and outrage in equal measure, with black athletes subjected to dreadful abuse and intimidation in the segregated South.
The race, which followed the newly forged, rough-as-guts Route 66 Highway for the first 2,400 miles, was organised by CC Pyle, a colourful character with flexible morals whose grand schemes occasionally outgrew his ability to deliver.
On average, ‘Bunioneers’ ran 40 miles a day, in all kinds of conditions, typically with no decent food and very shoddy shelter waiting at the end of each leg. Stages could extend to almost 80 miles, with competitors facing potential disqualification if they failed to finish by midnight.
Some runners adopted stray dogs along the way; one, a German shepherd named Blisters, kept pace with the race for 500 miles. Others found the energy to entertain themselves in the evenings by dancing – until one competitor sustained a race-ending injury during a jig.
Exposure, exhaustion, illness and injuries forced runners from the field almost daily, right from the off, and it quickly became a war of attrition as much as a test of endurance. Ultimately, only a quarter of those who set out from LA would run across the finish in Madison Square Gardens. But what a strange story those 50 odd men had to tell.
ROUTE 66 KICKS
CC Pyle, a flashy and successful sport agent, had been commissioned to stage an event to promote the newly opened Route 66 Highway. Enlisting the help of his star signing, Red Grange – the best American football player of his generation and a guaranteed crowd magnet – Pyle’s idea was to merge a multiday ultramarathon with a travelling carnival.
Other attractions that travelled across the US with Grange and the runners included a human freak show and the embalmed body of Oklahoma outlaw Elmer McCurdy, who’d been killed in a gunfight 17 years earlier.
Pyle intended charging towns and cities a fee for the privilege of hosting this strange circus, but first he needed some serious contenders – and lots of media coverage.
He opened the race to any physically fit male, and promised an eye-popping purse of $25,000 for the winner, the equivalent of 20 years’ wages
“It quickly became a war of attrition as much as a test of endurance”
for a manual labourer. This and other cash prizes attracted a disparate crowd of drifters, dreamers and desperately poor men, as well as elite international athletes.
In return for the $125 entry fee, Pyle promised to provide shelter and food to all competitors for the duration of the race, or for as long as it took them to quit – because he well knew that many men would never make the distance.
Setting up camp at Ascot Park, LA, Pyle informed would-be competitors they needed to be there by 12 February 1928, for ‘final training’. For the 275 men who showed up, this involved a 6am breakfast, followed by a 25- to 50-mile run, lunch, more exercise in the afternoon, dinner, then bed by 9pm. It cost 50 cents per night for a bed and 50 cents for every meal.
This quickly whittled the starting line-up down, and by race day, 76 had dropped out. Before the start, the event physician, John Baker, examined the 199 remaining men and declared only 40 of them fit enough to withstand the race – but the rest chose to run regardless. A prominent medical expert, Dr KH Begg, predicted the race would take five to ten years off the runners’ lives.
The first day was a comparatively short 17-mile jog to La Puente, CA, but that night, runners discovered what it was going to be like trying to rest while Pyle’s cacophonous carnival was in full swing next to their camp.
It was a stage race, so runners’ times were clocked daily, and the following morning everyone fit enough to continue would line up and start together. Some celebrity ‘pedestrians’ – such as Canada’s Philip Granville, Italian Giusto Umek and Harry Gunn, son of an American millionaire – walked every day, claiming the runners wouldn’t be able to sustain their pace for the full distance, and that a tortoise could beat a hare in such a long race.
Stages rapidly lengthened and the race soon entered the furnace of the Mojave Desert, where competitors faced 30oC heat and a relentless, blazing Sun sitting on their right shoulder from dawn to dusk. Water stations were few and far between. Up to 16 men dropped out every day for the first four stages, including race leader Willie Kolehmainen. And it wasn’t just the climate that took its toll. One runner, Walter Ricketts, was hit by a car and left for dead by the side of the road with seven broken ribs. Sleeping conditions were dire, washing facilities almost non-existent, and filthy, unwashed blankets and pillows were dished out randomly each night.
Pyle’s cook quit in a row over wages, and the men were subsequently given a $1.50 daily allowance and left to find their own food after running what often amounted to a double marathon. Some of the luckier, well-heeled runners had support crew, and were able to procure better lodgings and food, and it rapidly became a race of haves and have-nots.
RUN FOR THE HILLS
On day nine, the 130 remaining runners were ferried across the Colorado River to begin tackling the high country of Arizona. Leading the field was Arthur Newton, an ex-pat Brit who’d made a name for himself in South African running circles, with a young Native American called Andy Payne in second place.
As they crossed the spine of the Rocky Mountains – topping out at Fortynine Hill 2,400 metres), then Route 66’s highest point – Newton felt his Achilles tendon twinge. From Flagstaff, they descended 300 metres to the high desert near Diablo Canyon and a previously unscheduled stop at Two Gun Camp, with a talented black runner called Ed Gardner winning the 35-mile stage with Earl Dilks.
Newton finished third, limping badly, and the following day retired from the race. Payne, who’d been nearly five hours behind, found himself in first place, but he’d developed severe tonsillitis, and his lead was shortlived. Arne Souminen, a Detroit doctor, overtook him in Holbrook, and Payne’s name was mistakenly scrubbed from the leaderboard by officials who thought he looked too ill to continue.
Englishman Peter Gavuzzi, Finnish-born immigrant Johnny Salo and John Cronick, a
25-year-old crosscountry runner from Canada, were hot on the leaders’ heels, and Gardner won two stages through Arizona’s Painted Desert, leaping up into fifth place.
Running through the mist in the New Mexico highlands, Gavuzzi began gaining on Payne and Souminen, posting 8.5-minute miles during a stage win at Thoreau and covering 30 miles in under four hours the next day.
Behind the scenes, different clouds were gathering. In late March, the race crossed the Rio Grande at Los Lunas and entered Albuquerque, where the local mayor refused to allow the carnival to operate and Pyle’s plans began to unravel. Gavuzzi leapfrogged Payne into second place, crossing the great plain that stretched from Santa Rosa to Tucumcari, where storms reduced visibility to zero, but much worse awaited in Texas – especially for athletes of African descent.
Ed Gardner reached the border first, but during the six-day crossing of the Texas Panhandle, the black runners suffered terrible abuse from some local white farmers. In McLean, over Easter – having battled though blizzards and ankle-deep mud – local hotels wouldn’t accept the black runners, who slept on the floors of jails, post offices and barns.
Race leader Souminen suffered tendon damage on Easter Sunday and withdrew from the race. Payne – who’d recovered his health with the help of a trainer, Tom Young, employed on the promise of a percentage of any winnings – stole the lead from Gavuzzi as the race passed through his home state of Oklahoma, where the part-Cherokee farm boy quickly became a huge celebrity.
But the horrific abuse of black runners continued. Throughout 9 April, a white farmer rode behind Gardner with a gun pointing at his back, forbidding him to pass any white runner. The following day, Gardner let loose, smashing the 50-mile leg into Clinton in six hours 40 minutes, finishing two hours ahead of Payne and Gavuzzi and infuriating some spectators.
The race passed Payne’s hometown of Foyil with the local lad in the lead, however, and in nearby Claremore – the halfway point of the race – he was given a 21-gun salute. So many people tried to shake his hand that the adulation began to impact Payne’s performance.
With fewer than 80 men remaining, the race skimmed Kansas before entering Missouri in mid April. By the time they reached the Mississippi River and entered Illinois, Gavuzzi – proudly sporting a Union Jack flag – had taken the lead and put a good cushion between himself and Payne. With third-placed Johnny Salo even further adrift, it had become a
battle between Britain and America.
INTO THE APPLE
By the time the race outran Route 66 and left Chicago, Gavuzzi’s lead was seven hours and the field was down to 65 men. Several more Bunioneers were taken out by collisions with cars on Illinois’ congested roads, but a different problem crashed Gavuzzi’s race. Suffering severely with a tooth problem, the Englishman had been unable to eat for a fortnight, and on 11 May, just past Fremont, he was forced to withdraw. Payne was once again left in the lead.
Pyle’s problems continued to mount up, particularly after the St Louis Chamber of Commerce refused to pay his $12,000 fee, and the daily running distances were increased to cut costs. On three consecutive days, runners covered 52 miles, 58 miles and almost 75 miles under a blistering Sun on mountain roads.
This didn’t seem to affect second-placed Johnny Salo, who bravely attacked Payne’s lead as the race continued through Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. When runners reached Passaic, Salo’s hometown, on his 35th birthday, the local police chief offered the unemployed shipworker a job – an offer he immediately accepted. Meanwhile, fearing violence from Salo’s supporters (even though the runners had become good friends), Payne was given a police escort through the town.
Finally, 84 brutal days after leaving LA, 55 men crossed the Hudson River to Manhattan, where they were forced to do 200 miserable and pointless laps around a slippery track in Madison Square Gardens – a final flourish introduced by Pyle to squeeze some extra publicity money from the event. The placings were already decided, and most of the Sunmangled and emaciated men simply walked around the park.
Payne, a 20-year-old farm boy, had won the inaugural Trans-American Footrace with a time of 573 hours, four minutes, 34 seconds. He collected his winnings, paid off his parents’ farm, and promptly retired from running.
Competitor Johnny Salo is sworn in as a Passaic city police officerwhile still in his running gear Andy Payne maintains a strong lead the day before the end of the race Salo ( left) finished second to Payne ( right) in the 1928 race, but went on to win the following year